Lamenting lost futures is not that productive, but it doesn’t stop me enjoying it. Whether it’s the pleasure of reading Ellis’s “Ministry of Space” and thinking “what if?” or looking through popculture futures past as in this Guardian article – it’s generally a sentimental, but thought-provoking activity.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about a temporarily lost future that’s closer to home in the realm of mobile UI design. That’s the future that’s been perhaps temporarily lost in the wake of the iPhone’s arrival.
A couple of caveats.
Up until June this year. I worked at Nokia in team that created prototype UIs for the Nseries devices, so this could be interpreted as sour-grapes, I suppose.. but I own an iPodTouch, that uses the same UI/OS more-or-less, and love it.
I spoke at SkillSwap Bristol in September (thanks to Laura for the invite) and up until the day I was travelling to Bristol, I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I’d been banging on at people in the pub (esp. Mr. Coates) about the iPhone’s possible impact on interface culture, so I thought I’d put together some of those half-formed thoughts for the evening’s debate.
The slides are on Slideshare (no notes, yet) but the basic riff was that the iPhone is a beautiful, seductive but jealous mistress that craves your attention, and enslaves you to its jaw-dropping gorgeousness at the expense of the world around you.
This, of course, is not entirely true – but it makes for a good starting point for an argument! Of course, nearly all our mobile electronic gewgaws serve in some small way or other to take us away from the here and now.
But the flowing experience just beyond Johnny Ive’s proscenium chrome does have a hold more powerful than perhaps we’ve seen before. Not only over users, but over those deciding product roadmaps. We’re going to see a lot of attempts to vault the bar that Apple have undoubtedly raised.
Which, personally, I think is kind-of-a-shame.
First – a (slightly-bitter) side-note on the Touch UI peanut gallery.
In recent months we’ve seen Nokia and Sony Ericsson show demos of their touch UIs. To which the response on many tech blogs has been “It’s a copy of the iPhone”. In fact, even a Nokia executive responded that they had ‘copied with pride’.
That last remark made me spit with anger – and I almost posted something very intemperate as a result. The work that all the teams within Nokia had put into developing touch UI got discounted, just like that, with a half-thought-through response in a press conference. I wish that huge software engineering outfits like S60 could move fast enough to ‘copy with pride’.
Fact-of-the-matter is if you have roughly the same component pipeline, and you’re designing an interface used on-the-go by (human) fingers, you’re going to end up with a lot of the same UI principles.
But Apple executed first, and beautifully, and they win. They own it, culturally.
Thus ends the (slightly-bitter) side-note – back to the lost future.
Back in 2005, Chris and myself gave a talk at O’Reilly Etech based on the work we were doing on RFID and tangible, embodied interactions, with Janne Jalkanen and heavily influenced by the thinking of Paul Dourish in his book “Where the action is”, where he advances his argument for ‘embodied interaction':
“By embodiment, I don’t mean simply physical reality, but rather, the way that physical and social phenomena unfold in real time and real space as a part of the world in which we are situated, right alongside and around us.”
I was strongly convinced that this was a direction that could take us down a new path from recreating desktop computer UIs on smaller and smaller surfaces, and create an alternative future for mobile interaction design that would be more about ‘being in the world’ than being in the screen.
That seems very far away from here – and although development in sensors and other enablers continues, and efforts such as the interactive gestures wiki are inspiring – it’s likely that we’re locked into pursuing very conscious, very gorgeous, deliberate touch interfaces – touch-as-manipulate-objects-on-screen rather than touch-as-manipulate-objects-in-the-world for now.
But, to close, back to Nokia’s S60 touch plans.
Tom spotted it first. In their (fairly-cheesy) video demo, there’s a flash of something wonderful.
Away from the standard finger and stylus touch stuff there’s a moment where a girl is talking to a guy – and doesn’t break eye contact, doesn’t lose the thread of conversation; just flips her phone over to silence and reject a call. Without a thought.
As Dourish would have it:
“interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.”
I hope there’s a future in that.